What would have happened if the meteor that hit Siberia in February 2013 had been hurtling towards the Middle East? Israeli scientists say they have state-of-the-art technology that could have intercepted it. While the UK is busy replicating Silicon Valley on London’s Old Street roundabout, Israeli high-tech start-ups continue to propel themselves farther into the realm of science fiction. How does this innovative know-how fare in a conflict zone which continues to turn adversity into opportunity?
Israel’s start-up guru, Yossi Vardi — “the godfather” as young Israeli entrepreneurs refer to him — is to Israelis today what Brunel was to the Victorians, whose appetite for exploration, innovation and making money was seemingly insatiable. This same optimism and can-do attitude have become the hallmarks of Israel’s hi-tech society.
Keren Elazari is a 32-year-old über-hacker armed with five smartphones, though in polite company she calls herself a “cyber security expert”. At a tech conference in London last year, she hacked into the mobile phones of hundreds of geeks who should have known better in a stunt intended to demonstrate the devices’ lack of security.
Sitting in a hipster café in her native Tel Aviv, her brown hair tinted scarlet at the tips, Keren explains that she did not go to a special school, nor did she have a high-tech hub at her disposal when she was growing up. “I blame Angelina Jolie,” she says, explaining that she was inspired by Jolie’s hacking-hottie character in Hackers, a 1995 movie that depicted computer geeks as elite rebels. Armed with a PC from the age of ten and encouraged by her inventor parents, Keren trained herself through online forums, got a part-time job in a computer store and later, during her compulsory military service, talked her way into working on internet security in the Israeli army. ”Do you know what Israel’s most renewable source of energy is?” she asks me. “Chutzpah.”
Today, she has job offers from all over the world, gives lectures in California, attends high-tech conferences in Germany and advises start-ups and the government back home.
While the Victorians came up with the steam engine and the flushing toilet, Israel’s new cyber generation has invented the Stuxnet computer virus, which reportedly infected Iran’s nuclear programme, swallowable cameras that monitor your insides, and electronic super-noses that can sniff out (though sadly not snuff out) diseases such as stomach cancer.
Britons who emigrate to Israel quickly catch the entrepreneurial fever. “In Britain, the idea of working in a start-up didn’t even enter my head,” says Stefanie, 29, a recent arrival.
Five years ago she was climbing the London corporate ladder. She decided to ditch her marketing job and move to Israel with her twin sister Melanie. Today she works for WalkMe, which aims to “make the web experience easy for every person”. Launched in 2012, it recently came second in the “Best Start-up From Outside Europe” category at the Europas, the Oscars of European technology; in just over six months, the company increased its staff from 16 to 50. ”As a graduate in the UK, you tend to go for huge, established companies, go through endless psychometric tests, and pick something because it sounds good on your CV,” says Stefanie. “But here in Israel, there are fewer graduate schemes, so paradoxically it’s easier to get involved in something different.” But Israel of course has the conflict with the Palestinians, and dire relations with some of its neighbours to boot. Thanks to several near-disasters — France placed an arms embargo on Israel two days before the 1967 Six-Day War, and the American Patriot anti-aircraft system, which was supposed to block Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War, only deflected them to hit other cities — the Israeli army has become a sort of star-factory for technological innovation.
Talented young students are recruited straight from high school for special elite units. Members of one particularly secretive programme called Talpiot attract wide-eyed wonder among the public — if you get in, you’re made for life, people say. Living, studying and socialising almost exclusively together, its 100 or so participants first pursue an intensive degree in a combination of physics, mathematics and computer sciences. The innovation projects they then take part in are top secret, but are rumoured to be revolutionary in terms of technological development.
In the 1980s, while his contemporaries were watching Back to the Future, Avi Loeb, a graduate of Talpiot, developed a way to make projectiles travel more than ten times faster. Now a professor of science at Harvard, Loeb was only 21 years old when he presented his project to the head of President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, the missile-defence programme which became known as Star Wars.
One product — the Iron Dome missile interceptor designed and manufactured by the government-owned technology company Rafael Advanced Defence Systems — gained worldwide fame (and a huge Twitter following) during the November 2012 Israel-Gaza conflict. Rather than rush to the nearest air raid shelter, some Israelis ran outside to watch Hollywood-style rocket interceptions in the skies.
Defence officials say that while systems on a similar scale typically take ten to 20 years to develop, Rafael’s technological expertise and manpower enabled it to build the Iron Dome in less than three.
The young developers go on to work in other fields of innovation both in Israel and abroad, with products including ultrasound surgery systems, drugs to treat multiple sclerosis, the Java platform inside your Kindle, and Waze, an app that helps drivers to dodge traffic jams.
Some Britons who have emigrated to Israel have taken advantage of this military expertise in business. David, a Cambridge economics graduate who moved to Israel in 2001 and has since worked on three successful start-ups, speaks of how he recruited two recent graduates from elite army units who became an integral part of his company. “They were the most brilliant technologists, while we provided the business framework and support,” he tells me.
While this is something that the British Army might struggle to imitate, it needn’t worry. Alon, 31, who works in a start-up hub for a large multinational bank in Herzlya, just north of Tel Aviv, is quick to wave aside the idea that army experience is essential. “The experience is not mandatory for start-ups at all-look at how few elite units there are compared to the numbers of start-up entrepreneurs. On my team, no one has worked in IT in the army.” Alon studied programming at a Tel Aviv high school, one of 20 in the city sharing a technological centre, before getting a degree from Ben Gurion university “Nothing I learnt there I use now, as technology moves so fast,” he says. “What it does give you is the experience, the thinking patterns and the confidence to innovate.”
How is this innovative know-how fostered? “Having the right culture is very important,” says Naomi Krieger, director of the UK-Israel Tech Hub based at the British Embassy. “Here in Israel, to be entrepreneurial and an engineer is cool. I’m not sure this was always the case in the UK — but this is changing rapidly.”
The Tech Hub was launched in 2011 to encourage a stronger partnership between Britain and Israel. “The hub is not about the usual trade policy of selling things to each other,” explains Krieger, but rather “about UK and Israel teaming up their skills in order to be able to do business in the UK, Israel and other places.” This includes doing joint business with countries that may not have official diplomatic relations with Israel. The hub also brings start-up and industry delegations to Israel. In 2012 David Cameron appointed venture capitalist Saul Klein to be the UK’s first tech envoy to Israel to promote high-tech partnerships between the two countries. Israel is now Britain’s largest trading partner in the Middle East — thanks to high-tech, oil no longer dominates trade.
Of course, you can’t ignore politics. One of the reasons that Israel has developed such technological acumen is the conflict with its neighbours that has led to wars, terrorism and economic stagnation elsewhere. Some high-tech success stories carry the stigma of being located in West Bank settlements, like the ultra-Orthodox women working in a high-tech centre in Modi’in Ilit. On the other hand, innovation coupled with business know-how is spreading to other parts of society: Israeli Arabs are participating in high-tech entrepreneurship more than ever before.
One Israeli start-up — SpaceIL — is already moving beyond hitting wayward meteors and aiming to make Israel the fourth country to land on the moon, after the US, the Soviet Union and China. “Israel is a science-fiction fantasy coming true,” says Keren Elazari, as she heads off to dress up as Lady Gaga for a fancy-dress party.